Social Justice and Mediocre Intellectuals

By: Ludwig von Mises
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In dealing with the preponderance of the liberal social philosophy there is a disposition to overlook the power of an important factor that worked in favor of the idea of liberty, viz., the eminent role assigned to the literature of ancient Greece in the education of the elite.

There were among the Greek authors also champions of government omnipotence, such as Plato. But the essential tenor of Greek ideology was the pursuit of liberty. Judged by the standards of modern liberal and democratic institutions, the Greek city-states must be called oligarchies. The liberty which the Greek statesmen, philosophers and historians glorified as the most precious good of man was a privilege reserved to a minority. In denying it to metics and slaves they virtually advocated the despotic rule of an hereditary caste of oligarchs. Yet it would be a grave error to dismiss their hymns to liberty as mendacious. They were no less sincere in their praise and quest of freedom than were, two thousand years later, the slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It was the political literature of the ancient Greeks that begot the ideas of the Monarchomachs, the philosophy of the Whigs, the doctrines of Althusius, Grotius, and John Locke, and the ideology of the fathers of modern constitutions and bills of rights. It was the classical studies, the essential feature of a liberal education, that kept awake the spirit of freedom in England of the Stuarts and George III, in France of the Bourbons, and in Italy, subject to the despotism of a galaxy of princes.

No less a man than Bismarck, among the nineteenth-century statesmen the foremost foe of liberty, bears witness to the fact that even in the Prussia of Frederick William III the Gymnasium was a stronghold of republicanism. The passionate endeavors to eliminate the classical studies from the curriculum of the liberal education and thus virtually to destroy its very character were one of the major manifestations of the revival of the servile ideology.

It is a fact that a hundred years ago only a few people anticipated the overpowering momentum which the antiliberal ideas were destined to acquire in a very short time. The ideal of liberty seemed to be so firmly rooted that everybody thought that no reactionary movement could ever succeed in eradicating it. It is true, it would have been a hopeless venture to attack freedom openly and to advocate unfeignedly a return to subjection and bondage. But antiliberalism got hold of people's minds camouflaged as superliberalism, as the fulfillment and consummation of the very ideas of freedom and liberty. It came disguised as socialism, communism, and planning.

No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists, and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individual's freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom. They called themselves left-wingers and democrats, and nowadays they are even claiming for themselves the epithet liberals.

These intellectuals and the masses who followed their lead were in their subconsciousness fully aware of the fact that their failure to attain the far-flung goals which their ambition impelled them to aim at was due to deficiencies of their own. They were either not bright enough or not industrious enough. But they were eager not to avow their inferiority both to themselves and to their fellow men and to search for a scapegoat. They consoled themselves and tried to convince other people that the cause of their failure was not their own inferiority but the injustice of society's economic organization. Under capitalism, they declared, self-realization is only possible for the few. "Liberty in a laissez-faire society is attainable only by those who have the wealth or opportunity to purchase it." Hence, they concluded, the state must interfere in order to realize "social justice."

What they really meant is, in order to give to the frustrated mediocrity "according to his needs."

Excerpted froMoney, Method, and the Market Process